Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Getting to Know Astros/Grizzlies RHP James Hoyt

For those who don't know James Hoyt's story, Evan Drellich gave us the longer version of the story shortly after Hoyt came to the Astros, along with Evan Gattis in the trade that sent Mike Foltynewicz, Rio Ruiz and Andrew Thurman to the Braves in January of this year. When I talked with Hoyt recently, I hesitated to ask him about his back story, assuming that he has told it so many times that he's probably grown weary of telling it, but according to Hoyt, "I enjoy telling it because it's a part of me."

James Hoyt - May 2015
Photo by Jayne Hansen

When Hoyt tells his story, the picture that emerges is of a player whose high school life in Idaho never really revolved around baseball. He played but it was more of an afterthought. When he graduated from high school and decided to move to San Diego, a place he had fallen in love with over the years when visiting family, his high school coach Bill Buckner (yes, that Bill Buckner) put him in touch with a coach at Palomar College, a junior college near the San Diego area. It was at Palomar that Hoyt reveals he first started to learn the game and to really enjoy it.

Following his time at Palomar, Hoyt had the opportunity to pitch at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana and was excited to get the chance to play against some D1 schools, but he admits, "I was not advanced at all in baseball. I had a decent arm, nothing special." But he was getting more and more interested in playing. Unfortunately, Hoyt experienced a couple of setbacks at Centenary, including a knee problem, and his final college season was a disappointment. Although he talked to a few scouts, he wasn't drafted and no further opportunities in baseball presented themselves at the time.

Of this time, Hoyt said, "I had knee surgery so I just kind of shut it down, moved back to San Diego which was a place I enjoy and love and always want to call my home." Hoyt fell into a job working on sailboats in Mission Beach, but kept involved in baseball through a friend who coached high school baseball. After a year or so, he realized that he still had the baseball bug, and decided to give the independent route a try.

Jose Canseco's Yuma Scorpions were holding tryouts in Los Angeles and Hoyt decided to go. Long story short, he got the job and played on a team with Jose Canseco managing and batting cleanup, Ozzie Canseco at first and 18-year major league veteran Tony Phillips playing at third. "There was some real history on this team," said Hoyt. He didn't know what to expect, but it was interesting and after one season he decided to give it just one more year.

Unfortunately, about a week before Hoyt was set to report to the Scorpions for his second season, the team went belly up and Hoyt found himself playing for another team in the same league in Edinburg, Texas. He then moved on to an American Association team in Wichita. At some point he got the attention of a Mexican League scout who gave Hoyt about 24 hours to decide if he wanted to join the Tabasco team for their playoff run. According to Hoyt, "It was a lot more than I was making in independent ball so I ended up taking that door. Doors just kept opening."

Hoyt played well in the Mexican League and drew the attention of an Atlanta scout who signed him to his first affiliated minor league contract at age 27. He decided to give it one more year. And it was a good year. After playing for the High A Lynchburg (VA) Hillcats and the AA Mississippi Braves (Jackson, Mississippi) in 2013, Hoyt broke Baseball America's Braves top prospect list at number 30. "Things just kind of kept rolling and I started to figure out who I was as a pitcher and as a person," said Hoyt. He decided to give it one more year.

2014 saw Hoyt splitting his time between the Mississippi Braves and the AAA Gwinnett Braves in Lawrenceville, Georgia before heading to San Francisco de Macoris in the Dominican Republic for winter ball that year. And that is where Hoyt was in January 2015 when he got the call from Astros GM Jeff Luhnow that he was now an Astro, having been acquired in a trade with the Braves. But Hoyt couldn't come home quite yet. He and the rest of the Gigantes del Cibao were busy winning a National Championship that month. And with the new opportunity with the Astros, he was staring in the face of one more year.

Believe it or not, that is a somewhat abbreviated version of how James Hoyt got to where he is now. Hoyt spent the 2015 season playing for the Astros AAA Fresno Grizzlies affiliate, a team that won both the Pacific Coast League Championship and the AAA National Championship. Hoyt had a very good season, compiling a 3.48 ERA and a 1.204 WHIP with 9 saves in 47 appearances. However, after spending almost a month on the disabled list from mid-May to mid-June, Hoyt really kicked it into gear. Following that DL stint, he had a 1.56 ERA and a 0.837 WHIP in his final 33 regular season games.

But rambling man Hoyt wasn't finished yet. He just recently returned from spending a half-season in Venezuela playing winter ball where he put up a 1.86 ERA and a 0.983 WHIP in 19 appearances, converting 9 of 10 save opportunities. One of the reasons for that excellent winter ball campaign came out when I asked Hoyt about his pitch repertoire.

According to Hoyt, "For the majority of my career, I've just been a fastball/slider guy. And with the Braves, that's all I had was fastball/slider and I messed around with a splitter here and there. It's a comfortable grip. I threw it in college, but this summer toward the end of the season in Fresno, I really started trying to get a little more feel with the split finger. That was my main reason to go to Venezuela was to master that pitch because I think it can be a plus pitch for me."

Hoyt sees the splitter as a new weapon to complement his mid-90's fastball and hard slider. "I owe most of the success I had down in Venezuela thanks to that pitch, just to be able to fine-tune it. I'm excited for Spring Training to come and show these guys that I've got a third pitch and it worked for me down there. Obviously, my fastball is what sets the table so I've got to use that to locate and then go from there," said Hoyt.

Aside from that splitter, the biggest jump for Hoyt in 2015 was a mental one as he found the right mindset necessary to close games. Hoyt explained, "When I got to Fresno, we really didn't have a closer and we were just kind of rotating. (After the injury), I really got comfortable into the late innings and Tony De (Fresno Manager Tony DeFrancesco) ended up giving me the ball in the ninth inning later in the season and going into the playoffs." For Hoyt that was big because he had never been used consistently for late inning work and needed to make the mental leap and find the confidence to get those three late outs.

Hoyt sees having thrown consistently in the ninth inning toward the end of his AAA season and having been used exclusively as a closer in Venezuela as something that will help him going forward, "I think now if I'm placed in the sixth to ninth innings, it's going to be beneficial for me that I got that experience to be a closer and to get those outs."

Hoyt is now relaxing in San Diego, getting his work in and getting mentally prepared for the new season. He told me more about his time in Venezuela. "I just really enjoy winter ball. I think it makes me a better pitcher and gets me prepared. It's a completely different atmosphere. You're kind of in an uncomfortable position and I feel good with those scenarios. That was my first time in Venezuela. Last winter I was in the Dominican Republic and then (in 2012), I pitched in Mexico. That was the trio I kind of wanted to conquer and I was able to do that. It was a great experience. I would go back in a heartbeat."

Of his experience playing for the AAA National Championship Grizzlies team, Hoyt told me, "We had so much talent on that team, it was crazy. We just needed to go out there and play. All I really needed to do was throw strikes and we were going to put up runs and guys were going to make plays behind me. So that's all I tried to do from July to September, the last game in El Paso when we won the National Championship. That's all I really focused on was just being consistent and staying healthy and throwing strikes, and next thing you know, we won it all so it was good."

Of course, I had to rag Hoyt a little about one of the Championship finals games I had attended when Fresno played at Round Rock in September. It was a crazy come-frombehind game. Fresno was down 7-1 after three, but came roaring back and took the lead 8-7 in the top of the eighth inning. Hoyt came in for the save in the bottom of the ninth. One pitch from Hoyt and the game was tied.

Hoyt remembered it well, "I don't care if it's a tie game or we're down 10 runs. I had to tip my cap to that guy, [Nomar] Mezara ... he got me first pitch. The next day everybody was saying, 'Was that the right pitch there?' Should I have gone slider? No, I'm not going to go slider first pitch. I'm going to challenge these hitters. Sometimes they're going to get you. I said, 'That's not the end. I'm going to see that guy again.' And I ended up getting him for the last out to win the (PCL) Championship. I knew I would face him again."

It took a while to get there, going from Idaho to California to Louisiana to Arizona to Texas to Kansas to Mexico to Virginia to Mississippi to Georgia to the Dominican Republic back to California and on to Venezuela, but by plodding along, Hoyt has a couple of Championship Rings, a brand new pitch and is on the cusp of making it to the Bigs. Hoyt has never been in a hurry, but when each door opened, he entered and made the most of it. I think he's ready to give it one more year.

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Thanks for your time, James, and best of luck in the coming season.

2 comments:

  1. I can see Hoyt helping out the Astros bullpen in 2016. His journey has been amazing. He was dominant from around the middle of May through the end of the season in 2015.

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